Despite the demoralising waves of seemingly perpetual, often self-inflicted crises that strike Pakistan – everything from political corruption to sectarian violence and collapsing infrastructure, with the odd natural disaster thrown in – the contemporary art scene has burgeoned into something markedly healthy, even brimming with optimism. It’s not necessarily the case that crisis breeds good art, this is largely a misconception, and there is dubious proof for this thesis wherever you are in the world. Rather, the positive state of affairs arises from the sheer persistence and growing sense of communality among a substantial community of peers.
There is little comprehension in the international context as to the conditions of practice that have been established in Lahore. Just a few miles from the border with India, this green and vivacious city has, over the past two decades, developed a specific kind of pedagogical situation and large artistic community. It has been like a greenhouse for numerous Pakistani artists who are now well-established on the international scene. For example, early-approaching-mid-career artists including Shazia Sikander, Hamra Abbas, Aisha Khalid, Imran Qureshi, Rashid Rana and Bani Abidi, amongst several others now established outside Pakistan, all studied at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore.
In a certain sense, this is a case of two cities that have defined themselves in relation to each other. Karachi has also become a metropole for art over the last two decades, particularly around the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) and other initiatives such as the VASL residency programme, as well as commercial spaces such as ArtChowk. Broadly speaking, Karachi’s scene has defined itself through what has been referred to as Karachi Pop, exemplified by the work of artists such as Iftikhar Dadi and David Alesworth, now himself resident in Lahore, who looked to reflect popular street craft and the vivacity of the urban landscape. In Lahore, by contrast, since the 1980s, contemporary artists have consistently used the traditional practice of miniature painting. This New Miniature aesthetic, often said to have been introduced by Zahoor ul Akhlaq, has come as a result of training students to continue this established Pakistan tradition. There are few galleries, and even less of them are dedicated to experimental practices. The notable exception is Rohtas Gallery’s space in Lahore, which opened in 2001 and runs an active programme of around eighteen exhibitions per year. Other than this, there is the Lahore Museum, a colonial-era relic with paintings by Amrita Sher-Gil, dubbed the ‘Indian Frida Kahlo’, found alongside Buddha statues, miniature paintings and archaeological finds of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. It is evident, though, that art academies are the beating heart of the Lahore art scene, not exhibition spaces.
What is remarkable about
Lahore is that educational establishments are considered the
central hubs for artistic exchange and
discourse.What is remarkable about Lahore is that
educational establishments are considered the central hubs for
artistic exchange and discourse. Established artists are all
compelled to teach and even emerging artists perceive this role
as intrinsic to being an artist in the city, which is certainly
not something that occurs in other parts of South Asia. And
though the technical, ‘craft’ aspect of making art is a
fundamental part of the teaching, it isn’t necessarily a case
of wanting to perpetuate a ‘master and apprentice’ relationship
between lecturer and student, but a much more discursive
scenario, with lecturers often not much older than their
students. The main institutions are the National College of
Arts (NCA) and the Beaconhouse National University of Art and
Design (BNU), both of which offer different but complimentary
approaches to teaching. The NCA is an established state
institution, and the BNU is a recently founded private
initiative. It would be too easy to ideologically compare these
institutions based on which side of the public/private coin
they sit on, instead it is worth noting that among established
artists they are both considered important for sustaining a
healthy creative life in the city.
Set up during the colonial era and located next door to the Lahore Museum in the heart of the city, the NCA has long been considered the bedrock of art practice in Lahore. Although historically the students have been predominantly female, today the student community is more gender-balanced. The courses at the NCA are divided into traditional art forms, and the fine art painting programmes include life drawing and training in the techniques of miniature painting. Conscious of the interpersonal skills required to work in the global context, there are also English lessons specifically designed to help artists talk about their work – it seems there is an awareness that the art world has now opened itself up to include Pakistanis. At the helm of the fine art department for over two decades has been Quddus Mirza, also established as a writer and curator, and editor of the online journal ArtNow.1 The faculty includes many of Pakistan’s most well-known artists, including Qureshi, Hasnat Mahmood and Khalid, along with numerous practitioners of the emerging generation such as Imran Channa. The curator and writer Atteqa Ali provides an art historical and theoretical lecture programme, and used to co-edit the journal of contemporary arts and culture published by the NCA, Sohbet, until its recent abrupt end due to content some found provocative.2 The NCA also has a gallery space with an intermittent programme, including a recent installation by Qureshi. The NCA thus not only occupies a central position in the city but also in the artistic psyche. It is the main focus of public investment in art in Lahore, and also the focus of the personal and professional investment of a number of established artists, who see the pedagogical context, and collaboration, as an essential part of their practice.
With its large-scale purpose-built campus in the placid rural suburbs of Lahore, the BNU is set for further expansion. It opened its doors in 2003 and, sponsored by Beaconhouse, a privately owned initiative that runs schools across Pakistan, it is in possession of enviable teaching and production facilities. The Dean, Salima Hashmi, long considered the matriarch of the Pakistani art scene, made numerous key appointments to help form the teaching programme. The fine art course is run by artists Rashid Rana, Huma Mulji and Risham Syed, whose programme foregrounds experimentation, with traditional practices taught with the aim only to increase technical ability. Where the NCA has the weight of history, one can sense that the BNU has the ability to look beyond the established aesthetic discourse around the miniature. An active younger generation has already emerged from the BNU, including artists such as Mehreen Murtaza, Basir Mahmood and Fahd Burki, who are beginning to exhibit widely outside of Pakistan. Unlike the NCA, which is entirely made up of Pakistani students, the BNU has a more international community of students, with some coming from India and Afghanistan. Yet the BNU is not beyond criticism, and has been charged with being a place only for the privileged elite due to its high fees.
Lahore offers a model for
the support of artistic practice that is not focused on making
exhibitions, as is so often the case in Europe, but rather on
developing one’s studio practice, distributing knowledge and
implanting oneself into the local discursive
context.Lahore offers a model for the support of
artistic practice that is not focused on making exhibitions, as
is so often the case in Europe, but rather on developing one’s
studio practice, distributing knowledge and implanting oneself
into the local discursive context. It is not felt that
exhibitions have necessarily contributed to the historical
discourse over time – for example, there is little impulse in
the city to organise artist-run spaces. In order to be a
critically successful artist living in Lahore, you must instead
become involved in a pedagogical institution, and thus
immediately give something back to the sort of infrastructure
that you have emerged from. It is then virtually only in an
international context, that your art exists within the space of
exhibitions. This sort of semi-structured peer-to-peer
situation posits participation as the core value of artistic
practice. It does however raise questions as to whether it is
possible to be a critically successful artist living in Lahore
if consciously based outside of the legitimising space of the
institution. Nonetheless, it is remarkable to see such an
approach being used so consistently across generations in
Lahore, and even more remarkable to glimpse such dedication to
participate in the cultural ecology of the city.
Nav Haq would like to dedicate this essay to Lauren Philp.